Image: Charlotte Mortlock (@CMMortlock)

‘Name has been changed’: on JobSeeker, personal stories and structural change Analysis

‘Name has been changed’: on JobSeeker, personal stories and structural change

A woman with short blonde hair and glasses smiling into the camera

By Caitlin McGregor

This story is part of the My Corona series. We’re publishing personal stories about life beyond the pandemic, and about building back fairer. 

More than three million people are living in poverty in Australia. Of these, 774,000 are children under the age of 15, and 1.2 million are under 24. People cannot rely on Australia’s current social security payments to escape poverty—even though the nominal purpose of these payments is to prevent poverty.

When VCOSS asked me to write this article, they wanted me to describe what the higher JobSeeker rate during the pandemic meant to me, as a young sole parent on social security payments, and what it will mean to go back towards the dismal old Newstart-era rate.

Since that brief, the Federal Government has announced a meagre permanent raise to the JobSeeker rate: $50 a fortnight. That’s around $3.50 a day, and still leaves the rate well below the poverty line.

There was no shortage of personal impact stories shared in the lead up to this decision; you can Google ‘jobseeker cuts stories’ and read as many as you like. The format of these stories tends to be familiar: stats + stats + Pat’s* story, stats + stats + Maria’s* story.

But as Rick Morton writes for the Guardian: ‘The problem is not necessarily that [the prime minister] has not lived this life, but that he refuses to accept the testimony of the millions who have.’

Put another way: it’s not that the government doesn’t know, it’s that the government doesn’t care.

In this context, it can be painful to tell our own stories (again, and again, and again…), because it can feel like we’re only adding to what should already be an unignorable pile of testimonies, to which no one in power has any intention of listening.

*

Of course, I do have anecdotes if you need them. I have anecdotes that prove life has, at times, been tough—a whole repertoire of little indignities. 

Caitlin’s* story: Upon finding out that postgraduate study wouldn’t count as a ‘mutual obligation’ for my ‘job plan’, and that I therefore couldn’t afford the childcare that would allow me to continue my studies, I cried in the Centrelink office. I explained that my degree was structured under the assumption that students would continue to study after undergrad. ‘Can you tell me what I’m supposed to do?’ The woman behind the desk said, ‘I think you’ve been helped more than enough. What you’re supposed to do is be grateful, and start doing some work.’

It is currently the Liberal Party of Australia deciding to drop the JobSeeker rate. But this runs deeper than simply being a partisan issue. Back in 2012, the Gillard Labor government announced that recipients of the Parenting Payment—mostly mothers, who were parenting on their own—would have the payment cut once their youngest child turned six. They were to be pushed, instead, onto Newstart* (now called JobSeeker), which was worth $180–$200 less a fortnight. Defending this decision, Gillard said: ‘I’m a big believer in the dignity that comes from work.’ But as Anne Manne points out, ‘She did not mean mother work or care work or volunteer work … Her definition of work was narrow. She meant paid work.’

Of course, I do have anecdotes if you need them. I have anecdotes that prove life has, at times, been tough—a whole repertoire of little indignities. 

I sometimes wonder what I should have said to that Centrelink worker who told me it was time to ‘start doing some work’, after I’d spent three years juggling study and parenting on my own. Perhaps I should have pointed to my child as a direct product of my labour. Listen to him read! Observe his emotional intelligence! Measure the joy he experiences, and that he brings to other people! Look at the corn he planted in the backyard! Look at the surgical work that has been done on his feet to treat his talipes, look at his insulin levels—I feed him food, I manage his illnesses, I am keeping him working. Is he not a top quality model, an impressive product—and proof—of all my work?

I did not do this, of course, because it’s messed up to think of care and relationship-based work in this capitalist, productivity-driven way. Quite apart from the fact that thinking of people as products erases humanity and agency, it is simply not reflective of the way good care works. It’s also not how good art or good writing works, it’s not how good community works, and for many of us it’s not a framework through which we can measure the value of the work that we do.

And this, perhaps, gets to the crux of the issue: it’s not that there aren’t enough testimonies to how difficult it is to be living on an income that’s below the poverty line, and that amounts to $41.2% of the minimum wage. It’s a matter of ideology. Of what—and who—is deemed to be worth investing in. 

*

Politicians often cite wanting to ‘incentivise people to find [paid] work’ as a reason for not raising the Newstart/JobSeeker rate above the poverty line. I tell you what, though: if you’re a single parent on social security payments it also ‘financially incentivises’ you to not be single anymore, preferably by dating a man (they earn more than women) with a job. Coincidentally, this is precisely what I did a few years ago.

This man and I moved in together quickly—far too early in our very new relationship—partly because he was moving from Melbourne to start a job near the country town where I lived; and partly, on my end, because I was tired. Tired of being broke, tired of waking up shaking from nightmares where I ran out of money, tired of having panic attacks when I went to get the mail from the letterbox, dreading a speeding fine or an unexpectedly high bill. 

I am now financially better off than I ever was on my own, not because I work harder—I don’t think I could have worked much harder than I did in those years as a single parent—but because I have a partner.

Having such a low JobSeeker rate not only values paid employment to the detriment of all other work, but reinforces the gendered division of labour and forces people who rely on these payments to also be dependent on the people around them: often on men, who are statistically more likely to be doing the kind of work that is rewarded with salaries, and who don’t have to offer up their personal stories in order to convince anyone they deserve to be paid. 

*

Not to go all John Lennon on you, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of imagination in social change. One of the things the temporary increase to the JobSeeker rate meant to me was that it made it easier to imagine what that change could feel like permanently. I can, now, more easily imagine a world in which I’d have time to do the work that I believe matters most. 

I can imagine how much tension would dissolve from my relationship if my child and I weren’t financially dependent on my partner. Imagine the stress knots around my neck and shoulders dissolving, imagine the tight sick feeling that sits at the top of my stomach clearing. Imagine the joy of my dogs, the extra walks they would get. Imagine the book I would write, imagine the food I would grow, imagine the time I would spend playing boardgames and reading and learning with my child. 

I can imagine—and start workingtowards—a future in which Pat* and Maria* won’t have to tell their most painful stories for reports anymore, and can start living and telling better ones instead.

*Name has been changed. 

Caitlin McGregor is an essayist based in regional Victoria. Her work has appeared in a range of magazines and literary journals, including Going Down Swinging, Overland, The Big Issue, Kill Your Darlings and Voiceworks. Caitlin is currently working on an essay collection that explores and interrogates ideas about ‘care’.